Four Christmases

by Rick Grant
Grade: D / Rated PG-13 / 82 min
Every year during the holiday season the major studios feel compelled to release this type of mind rot. Why must we have formulaic Christmas’ themed films? Ah yes, like eggnog and fruitcake, it’s a tradition. This film starts out with snappy dialogue between Brad (Vince Vaughan) and his girlfriend, Kate, (Reese Witherspoon) who are trying to avoid the inevitable stress of visiting any of their in-laws.
The two anti-holiday travelers are planning a trip to Fiji to escape the intolerable Christmas hype. However, things get messed up when all flights are cancelled and they end up participating in the Christmas visits they were trying to avoid. And, it turns out worse than they ever imagined.
So, at each relative’s house, the viewer is subjected to the low brow comedy of pratfalls, baby-puke jokes, mention of sex between Brad’s mother (Sissy Spacek) and a much younger man, and the usual dysfunction of creepy relatives at Christmastime.
Mary Steenburgen plays Kate’s mom. She is dating the pastor of her church (Dwight Yoakam) and her sister brings up embarrassing incidents from her childhood. Brad’s father Howard (Robert Duvall) is old school and when Brad tries to install a satellite dish, he destroys dad’s living room. Of course, the script written by a committee, plays to the nightmare of Christmastime visits to relatives that we all have gone through and sworn never to repeat again. But the next holiday season arrives, and we’re back for more torture at the hands of our crazy family tree.
After the upscale San Francisco couple are into visiting various relatives, their relationship begins to come unglued from the stress, which brings the couple into the midpoint of the film. Suddenly the air is sucked out of the comedy as the script turns serious. It’s just too much of a drastic change in mood.
The quantum shift in tone buries the comedy under the heavy weight of a couple who are questioning their relationship after seeing what pathetic gene pool from which they came. At this point, it’s almost impossible to regain the comedic momentum that was well established in the first part of the scenario.
In a serious moment, Kate finds her sister’s pregnancy test kit and tests herself. In the glare of having witnessed the grossness of having babies, she is relieved that she is not pregnant. But this causes a rift between Brad and her. Up until now, and when the couple started to find out about each other’s screwed up families, they were blissfully unaware of having kids.
Can this union be saved given the tensions that the holiday visits have raised? Not likely! Now the couple is digging deep into the emotional core of their relationship? Well, the script tries to dig itself out of the black hole it established at the mid-point of the story. But the damage is done. A vacuum has been created that is impossible to escape.
The director Seth Gordon and writers should have decided that if they were making a feel good holiday comedy, then they should stick to a lighter tone and not try to deepen the context. But so often in today’s attitude toward comedy, the filmmaker feels he or she has to play the comedy off a serious segment to drive it home to give it a broader meaning.
By opting to drop the comedy with a serious segment, the film lost its comedic momentum, leaving only dead air in its place. Gordon blew the comedy, which was intelligently written, in favor of going for the sentimental jugular. It just didn’t work.